Credit

The Greek Tragedy: Could a ‘Haircut’ Help?

Debate has been raging as to whether the Greek economy can avoid bankruptcy. Just how big is the problem, what are the options and how is this impacting financial markets? 

Background to the Problem

Greece is around €300bn in debt. Putting that into context, its budget deficit is one of the highest in Europe and last year amounted to more than four times the Eurozone limit at 13.6% of GDP. This more than supports the country’s inclusion in the infamous ‘PIIGS’ acronym (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) used to refer to the areas of sovereign debt concern.

What’s Going On?

Despite the jobless rate reaching 16% (and a horrific 42.5% for youth), the Greek economy has seen only marginal deleveraging. Instead, people are depending on consumer credit to maintain their levels of expenditure and service their debts (i.e. paying credit card bills with other credit cards). Moreover, whilst many in the UK struggle to obtain loans from banks, the overall banking sector in Greece actually increased their credit availability, with the most significant increase going to the government itself.

Attempted Solutions

Last Thursday, Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the European Central Bank, announced that they would lend Greece €45bn in new loans. However, this alone, they acknowledge, is not enough. The ECB wants to see structural reforms and a good deal of privatization, with the claim that €50bn could be generated over 3 to 5 years to reduce debt/GDP from 160% to 140%.

What are the Complications?

Loans to ‘bailout’ struggling countries are partially funded by taxpayers from different countries within the EU. Therefore, the problem is not an isolated one. Furthermore, even after this loan and the privatization contributions, there will be a financing gap of €170bn between 2012 -14 which will need filling. European banks have to refinance €1.3tn maturing debt by end 2012 and are owed over €200bn already by the PIIGs for refinancing ops.

Could a Good ‘Haircut’ Help?

With so much talk of a ‘restructuring’, i.e. bond holders sharing some of the pain, it is interesting to hear the views of Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, an ECB executive board member on the subject. He maintains that these are not the tools by which Greece can save its economy but could cause a “Depression” and “banking system collapse”. Furthermore, those pointing to a compromise of a voluntary or ‘soft’ restructuring appear to be fooling themselves. According to him, there is “no such thing as an ‘orderly’ or ‘soft’ re-structuring” since ‘haircuts’ (a percentage knocked off the par value of a bond) would have to be forced by governments. Crucially, any type of restructuring would cause a panic in the markets and cause credit events reducing the value of these investment vehicles either way.

Yield on a 10 year Greek Government Bond (Orange), 10 year German Government Bond (white) and the spread between the two (yellow) - showing the higher premium demanded by investors for holding Greek debt, near historical highs - highlighting a heightened risk perceived by the markets.

So, What Are the Options?

As previously mentioned, a default on some of its debts would have dire consequences but the prospects for sustainable financial solvency appear weak with such a substantial deficit and the habits of borrowers and lenders not much improved. Most worrying, from the perspective of European stability is the recent comments from a Greek EU Commissioner that “The scenario of removing Greece from the euro is now on the table”. Therefore, although in stark contrast to statements by Greece’s Prime Minister and with France and Germany still heavily exposed to EU laggards, which together make a break up of the euro unlikely in the short-term, it is a fear weighing on investors minds.

How are the financial Markets Reacting?

Risk aversion is back on the rise. Investors are worried and, understandably, demanding higher premiums to lend to Greece. That’s not all. Other markets are suffering. “All sophisticated indicators of systemic risk, cross correlations of CDS and yield spreads show a high sensitivity to restructuring moves and are at levels higher than in September 2008”.

The Investment Insight: What Can You Do?

This has two consequences. Firstly, investors should be more cautious of an indiscriminate sell-off but secondly, this can be used as an opportunity to pick up high quality assets at a lower price. Be wary but remain opportunistic.

Stagflation – A Risk Worth Noticing

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Much is made in the news of the risk of inflation. We can’t step far outside our doors without being faced with the challenges it brings. From shockingly high petrol prices to rising agriculture costs hitting our shopping bills, the fear is setting in. However, when we strip out these volatile elements, just how much of a problem is core inflation? Instead, with economic growth precariously fragile, when it does become a concern, won’t we be left fighting a ‘war on two fronts’? It’s time we start to notice the ‘Elephant in The Room’.

An Anaemic Recovery

The economic recovery remains weak. Still driven by the consumer, the environment for spending is tenuous. Retail sales for December were downgraded and January’s figures can only be described as “unspectacular”. We saw the first increase in the claimant count in four months (which would have been even higher had people not given up the job search entirely). Moreover, earnings growth slowed to the lowest rate in six months (from 2.5% to 2.0%). With Hometrack, the property analytics business, foreseeing homebuyers facing a continued struggle to obtain mortgages in 2011, the outlook for spending and GDP growth looks tough.

Source: Capital Economics “UK Labour Market Data” Regular pay growth slowed from 2.5% to 2.0% (Published end Feb 2011, data to end Dec / Jan)

Consumer Companies Highlight the Headwinds

Highlighting the problem were the many consumer companies missing Q410 earnings estimates and downgrading their forecasts for this year. Diageo, Colgate-Palmolive and P&G were among those that struggled to meet expectations. Falls in demand were blamed, with the situation looking none the rosier going forward. Renault predicts the demand for cars in their home market of France will fall by 8%. In addition, rising input costs is adding to woes. Pepsi is budgeting for a whopping 8 – 9.5% increase in the amount of capital they will spend on oil and agriculture commodities, which contributed to the firm lowering their forecast for earnings growth from low double digits to high single digits. The question on everyone’s lips is – can they continue to pass on higher costs to the consumer? With the aforementioned weakness, the most likely answer is “no”.

Source: Bloomberg. Next share price (white) and the Cotton price (orange) + >10% YTD already.

Inflation ‘Illusion’ Tempting Risky Action

So just how much of a problem is inflation, when compared to the weakness of the recovery? True, headline Inflation has held stubbornly above the Bank of England’s target at 3.7%. However, stripping out food and energy prices, core inflation falls to 2.9% and recent reports show that after excluding taxes, we hit the 2% jackpot. Regardless, the political environment poses a risk. The MPC (Monetary Policy Committee) is under immense pressure to defend its credibility after keeping rates on hold for 23 months consecutively. Markets are now pricing in a 25bps rise in May. Crucially, these expectations alone have consequences. In one week alone, more than 10 mortgage lenders pulled their best fixed rate deals – hitting credit availability to the already weakened consumer ‘spenders’.

Only an idiot fights a war on two fronts. ~ Londo Mollari, Babylon 5

Stagflation – A ‘War on Two Fronts’

This is the crux of the problem – promoting growth can at times risk inflation and fighting inflation can risk weakening growth. Currently the biggest challenge of the two is strengthening growth. If the recovery remains weak, then when inflation rises and poses a far more serious challenge, the government will not be able to implement policies to fight it without dragging the economy into another recession. The possibility of stagflation is real. In this situation the government will feel even more pressure to raise rates but unemployment will still be high and so if rates rise, many will suffer. At the moment the MPC have a “wait and see” attitude – let’s hope this continues and they don’t succumb to ‘peer pressure’ too soon.

Stocks Selection – What to Watch…

Finance regulation is like airline security – defending against the last threat – Anthony Hilton, Evening Standard

Source: Alan Caruba's blog "Facts not Fantasy", http://factsnotfantasy.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html

When picking an investment focus on the ‘R’sRegulation…. Ready for change…. Robust…. and then lets not forget Rotation…!

Regardless of the validity of the above quote, a higher level of regulation should be a serious consideration when picking stocks. Which sectors are most at risk? And what qualities should a company have to be able to flourish in this environment and provide an attractive vehicle in which to invest?

Let’s focus on the 3 ‘R’s which will help guide our way…

REGULATION – Within the financial sector, this may make banks more stable but less profitable….

READY FOR CHANGE – in contrast, those firms able to adapt will flourish (implementing new technologies, entering new economies (e.g. EM), exploiting niche opportunities)

ROBUST – whilst at the same time, the need for a strong balance sheet remains crucial in order to cope with, for example, the previously mentioned less predictable Emerging Markets. In addition, in this credit-starved environment, the firms with cash to burn are in a stronger position to buy cash-strapped competitors and build market share.

Note: The Economist this month published their 2011 themes, one of which summed up the latter 2 ‘R’s by coining a new term – forecasting of the dominance of “Multinationimbles” – combining multinational reach with nimbleness in strategy. Sited as an example was IBM, celebrating its 100 year anniversary this year, shifting its focus from hardware to selling services.

Another stock example: Nokia, originally a paper manufacturer back in the 19th century, with stints in rubber and electricity generation before entering the telecommunications industry. With products winning approval for sale in China, they are continuing to look for the next opportunity from which to profit.

Source: Google Finance

Ok, before we end the article, there is one more ‘R’ to watch, on a shorter time horizon you should be aware of:

ROTATION – out of defensives and into more cyclical stocks as investors gain confidence and put risk back on the table….

Demand for Debt limited, Outlook for Supply no better…. “How can I profit from this scenario?”

INVESTMENT INSIGHT: Invest in HIGH QUALITY companies – strong balance sheets – cash flow rich

“Despite various forms of support from the Bank of England and from Government, it is clear that the lending capacity of the banking system, in the UK and elsewhere, is impaired and will take some years yet to recover. Some banks need to continue de-risking and de-leveraging.” (Paul Fisher – Executive Director Markets and member of the Monetary Policy Committee – Bank of England)

 

As discussed, the outlook for the demand for debt is not looking rosy. Consumers, companies and governments are all focused on reducing the amount of borrowing on their “books”.  (See \”Isn\’t the consumer dead?..\”). On the other side of the equation, the supply of debt is also limited. Despite record stimulus packages, the amount of money that has reached the end user has remained muted.

In the US, commercial and industrial loans have fallen at an unprecedented rate.

 

Commercial and Industrial Loans at All Commercial Banks. Source: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Shaded areas indicate US recessions. 2010 research. stlouisfed.org

 

And in the UK, earlier this year, less banks stated they plan to increase supply of credit in June than March (BoE). Between Apr ‘11 and Jan ‘12 lenders are due to repay £185bn[1] raised under BoE special liquidity scheme. Furthermore, any banks that are able and willing to lend are being deterred with the threat of stricter global capital requirements looms as well as a tightening of credit scoring criteria.

INVESTMENT INSIGHT: Invest in high quality names, those with strong balance sheets, cash flow rich and therefore less likely to struggle needing to raise finance and instead more likely to have the capital to make value-adding acquisitions / increase market share